Advisory services: the ministries should assess whether in-house expertise is available and whether a commissioning is really necessary

25.09.2020 – The Federal Ministry of Social Affairs commissioned a study verbally

In its report published today on the "Commissioning of Advisory Services and Studies at Selected Ministries", the ACA criticizes that the ministries made use of external advisory services although they had in-house technical specialists. It recommends to the Federal Ministry (FM) of Social Affairs, the FM of Labour and the Foreign Ministry to consider the availability of internal know-how and to assess the need for external services prior to each commissioning. The auditors furthermore noticed misleading amount formats and formulations in the responses to parliamentary enquiries. The ACA recommends that the FM of Social Affairs and the Foreign Ministry pursue to provide comprehensive information to the members of parliament.

The ACA considers as positive that the FM of Social Affairs and the Foreign Ministry published the study results on their websites. The ACA welcomes the fact that the planned Freedom of Information Act (Informationsfreiheitsgesetz) apparently provides for an explicit obligation to publish study results.

The ACA selected 24 contract awards and one subsidy with an overall contract volume of EUR 3,324,645, of which 19 were attributable to the FM of Social Affairs and six to the Foreign Ministry. The audited period essentially spanned the years from 2014 through 2018, while the focus was on the years from 2017 to mid-2018.

Contract for an efficiency study on social insurance amounting to EUR 630,000

The FM of Social Affairs – which was in charge of health care during the audited period – commissioned the LSE Enterprise Ltd., London School of Economics and Political Science, to carry out an efficiency study on the Austrian social insurance system. The contract was awarded without a tender. The ministry failed to solicit comparative offers. In autumn 2016, the LSE submitted an offer: the maximum contract amount comprised EUR 630,000 (VAT excluded), of which a maximum amount of EUR 30,000 was attributable to travel expenses. The actual amount paid accounted for EUR 609,950 (VAT excluded). The ACA critically notes that this issue belonged to the scope of competence of the then FM of Health and furthermore stresses that the experts of the FM of Social Affairs were involved in the content conception only to a marginal extent. The auditors also criticize that the FM of Social Affairs failed to solicit comparative offers as regards the commissioning of the study. They recommend to tap into the advantages of competition also when it comes to direct contract awards and solicit, in general, three offers.

In August 2017, the LSE presented a study, of which two thirds were written in English. The ACA critically notes that no official German version was available at the time of the audit. As regards research contracts that do not have German as the working language, the ACA recommends to the FM of Social Affairs to clarify how and by whom the German study result can be prepared and quality assured.

FM of Social Affairs commissioned a study verbally

In the audited period, the FM of Social Affairs also failed to solicit comparative offers for advisory services regarding strategic communication. A consultancy company, for example, was commissioned verbally by the then federal minister in end-December 2017, five days after her entry into office. The daily rates amounted to between EUR 1,480 and EUR 2,400 and were therefore at the upper end of the range of the advisory services audited by the ACA. The initial commissioning incurred costs of EUR 12,900 (VAT excluded). The ACA criticizes that the commissioning was carried out verbally and stresses that only a written contract provides clarity on the services agreed. In the spirit of traceability and legal certainty, the ACA recommends to the FM of Social Affairs that contracts be always concluded in writing.

Study to evaluate Islamic kindergartens in Vienna: the communication between the ministry and the study’s author should be documented in a traceable manner

As regards the study to evaluate Islamic kindergartens in Vienna, the Foreign Ministry first granted a subsidy. The project was to give a detailed overview of Islamic kindergartens and children’s groups in Vienna and provide guidance for decision makers in the area of child education. The Foreign Ministry agreed with the funding recipient, the Institute for Islamic Theological Studies at the University of Vienna, that the project be run from 1 June 2015 to 1 December 2015. The overall funding accounted for EUR 33,783 (VAT excluded).

In early July 2017, allegations were raised that officials of the Foreign Ministry had influenced the author of the study in several points. Consequently, in mid-July 2017, the University of Vienna requested the commission of the Austrian Agency for Research Integrity to provide an expert opinion. The commission reached the conclusion that the author of the study could not be accused of scientific misconduct. The ACA notes the following in this regard: neither the communication process between the Foreign Ministry and the author of the study nor the textual amendments were documented in the filing system. The ACA recommends to document in a traceable manner all versions of the study and all substantial requests for amendments as regards content or form that are made by the ministry. The ACA also stresses that it should be meticulously weighted beforehand whether such services are to be funded or publicly tendered.

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Report: Commissioning of Advisory Services and Studies at Selected Ministries (in German)

From May to July 2018 – with additional surveys until July 2019 – the ACA audited the commissioning of advisory services and studies at the Federal Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs, Health and Consumer Protection and at the Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs. The audit aimed at assessing whether the federal ministries pursued an effective and economic approach with regard to the award of contracts. The audit focused on an overview of the services commissioned, on the need and the use as well as on the compliance with the relevant provisions for procurement.

Report: Commissioning of Advisory Services and Studies at Selected Ministries (in German) Download